Are The Russians The New Nazis?

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Photo by Michal Zacharzewski from FreeImagesHave you noticed this?

It seems like I can’t turn to a movie, TV show, or just about anything else produced by Hollywood without seeing the same thing over and over again.

No, I’m not talking about the plot. (That’s not a Hollywood thing, there are only three basic conflicts in all dramatic literature and that means a lot of repeated plots going all the way back to ancient Greece.)

And I’m not talking about the protagonists. (Yes, this superhero thing has gotten out of hand, but, hey, can you blame Hollywood? The more it sells the more they’ll make, at least until it stops selling.)

What I’m talking about is fast becoming a stereotypical prototype for the antagonist, the enemy of the protagonist, otherwise known as “the bad guy.” It’s not that they aren’t consistently male (they are). It’s the consistency of their ethnicity.

Holy Cold War, Batman! Nowadays the bad guy is almost always a Russian.

It used to be the Nazis were the reliable “go to” bad guys. No one likes the Nazis. Therefore, if you were producing a film or TV series and you wanted the audience to truly hate the antagonist, you’d make him a Nazi. Except for Hogan’s Heroes, which portrayed Nazis as bumbling buffoons (no doubt the greatest of insults), most depictions of these socialist tyrants made them as evil as can be.

Even two generations after their demise, two out of the three (original trilogy) Indiana Jones movies counted on using Nazis as the foil. It was a no-lose situation. Everyone hates the Nazis. And everyone loves the hero who thwarts the Nazis. Ergo, if you want people to love Indiana Jones, have him single-handedly outwit his Nazi opponents.

Heck, it even worked for Jake and Elwood (if you recall, in The Blues Brothers, they disobeyed the traffic rules and drove through a hoard of Nazis peacefully protesting in the middle of the street).

Things are different today. Except for period pieces, you hardly see Nazi bad guys anymore. I guess they stopped selling so Hollywood stopped making them.

But you still need a universal bad guy.

Now, the world is full of real-life bad guys. You read about them in the news all the time. In fact, if you go beyond American shores, you have every flavor of real-life bad guy you can imagine (but probably would rather not imagine).

From a creative standpoint, this represents an intriguing palette to paint your imaginary bad guy from. Think the broad range of James Bond bad guys you’ve seen over the years. Sure, they all work for SMERSH or SPECTRE or some similar organization, but, except for ego-maniacal hubris and penchant for world domination, they come from all walks of life.

And here’s the weird thing about James Bond: Born in the Cold War Era, the Russians would have made perfectly consistent foils. Sure, there were lots of Russian adversaries, but they were generally undercards to the main event. In fact, more often than not, Bond and/or MI6 were working hand-in-hand with the Soviets to defeat a common enemy (such was life in the land of Détente).

Would that other scriptwriters be as creative as those who crafted the Bond films. Today, we can profile your typical bad guy as some form of Russian terrorist/hacker/mobster/all-around ne’er do well (but always Russian or at least from some former member of the Soviet Union).

Why might this be so? There are plenty of terrorists out there from more prominent ethnic groups.

Perhaps, for one reason or another, they – or, more specifically, their financial backers – don’t appreciate being placed in the role of the villain. And, just maybe, their financial backers and Hollywood’s financial backers like to hang out together.

This is much like a leading man who refuses to play a bad guy. John Wayne was like that. Even his “bad guys” had an undeniable streak of goodness (in his case, American goodness) that outweighed any of their past sins.

Even in his first hit movie Stagecoach, where John Wayne plays The Ringo Kid, an outlaw, we learn he’s less than an outlaw than someone who was, in the modern vernacular, on the wrong side politically. The audience doesn’t revile him. They sympathize with him. And cheer him on when he defeats the real bad guys, who were neither Russians nor Nazis nor – at that point Hollywood’s then favored bad guys (in this film it was the Apaches) the Indians, but, rather (and this was also a classic antagonist in westerns) the men who killed Ringo’s father.

What’s funny about the reluctance of real bad guys to not want to be showed on the silver screen as fictional bad guys is that the Russians appear to actually like the idea of taking on that role. Maybe they think that makes them more menacing in real life. Can you imagine what Vladimir Putin would say about this?

Actually, great Hollywood actors – the kind that usually play good guys – often see the role of playing the villain as their greatest challenge. Of course, they won’t play a two-dimensional bad guy. They have to play a complex bad guy. Mind you, it’s not the kind of sympathetic character we see in The Ringo Kid. No, their bad guys must really be bad guys, but with enough of a twist as to make you think.

The best example of this is Jack Nicholson’s Joker role in the 1989 movie Batman. Both he and Michael Keaton (who played Batman) went beyond the comic book pages and added a serious depth to their characters that had never before been seen in superhero movies.

Oh, and like James Bond, Batman’s enemies came from a wide range of society.

And none of them were Russian. Or Nazis.

Of course, they were all certifiably insane, but we can’t say that anymore.

Stick with Russians. Fewer (if any) people will be upset.

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